U.S. President Barack Obama's arrival in Europe this week marks the culmination of a generational shift in leadership among Western democracies. The generation yielding power--the Baby Boomers--are so strongly connected to the 1960s that they are often called "'68'ers" in Europe. The 1960s spawned four decades of culture wars. The ascendance of post-Boomers is seen to end that tumultuous era's long grip on politics. But while the Boomer moment may be over, the legacy of the 1960s isn't. This generational transition really marks the 1960s' second act. The difference is that the torch has been passed from that decade's "flower children" to its actual children.
Obama was born in 1961 - 15 years after Bill Clinton and 19 years before daughter Chelsea. He is neither Boomer nor GenXer. Nor are most other leaders of the West today; many of them were born within just a few years of Obama. Instead, they belong to a distinct generation in between, one long under the radar and only now making its full impact felt.
I coined the term "Generation Jones" for those born between 1954 and 1965, which includes Obama and over two thirds of current NATO and EU leaders. We Jonesers have long been lumped with Boomers simply because we arrived during the same long post-World War II spike in births. But generations arise from shared formative experiences, not head counts, and the two groups evolved with dramatic differences. Our background is just as distant from Generation Xers'.
We fill the space between Woodstock and Lollapalooza, between the Paris student riots and the anti-globalization protests, and between Dylan going electric and Nirvana going unplugged. Jonesers have a unique identity separate from Boomers and GenXers. An avalanche of attitudinal and behavioral data corroborates this distinction.
So who are we?
We are practical idealists, forged in the fires of social upheaval while too young to play a part. The name "Generation Jones" derives from a number of sources, including our historical anonymity, the "keeping up with the Joneses" competition of our populous birth years, and sensibilities coupling the mainstream with ironic cool. It also borrows from the slang term "jonesin'" that we as teens popularized to broadly convey any intense craving.
The Jones runs deep in us. It arose from our 1960s childhoods. While the Boomers were out changing the world, Jonesers were still school kids--wide-eyed, not tie-dyed. That intense love-peace-change-the-world zeitgeist stirred our impressionable hearts. We yearned to express our own voice. By the time we came of age and could take the stage, though, a decade of convulsions had left these nations fatigued. During the game we'd been forced to watch from the sidelines, and passage into college and careers came only after the final gun had long since sounded.
The Boomers had their opportunity, and the GenXers weren't around soon enough to bear witness. Neither was left jonesin'. But the actual children of the 1960s yearned for something more. Our unrequited idealism has bubbled beneath the surface ever since.
Obama has The Jones. So do many of today's Western leaders. It permeates their biographies. It's a crucial piece of their identities.
Recognizing this generational mindset provides insight not only into their leadership, but also into the West itself in 2009. GenJones leaders like Obama, France's Sarkozy, and Germany's Merkel are redefining global politics. More than a quarter of all adults in many NATO and EU countries are Jonesers. Our size, age and influence across the board make us an irresistible force.
But there is something beyond our mere demographic might. What makes us Jonesers also makes us uniquely positioned to bring about a new era in international affairs. Our practical idealism was created by witnessing the often unrealistic idealism of the 1960s. And we weren't engaged in that era's ideological battles; we were children playing with toys while Boomers argued over issues. Our non-ideological pragmatism allows us to resolve intra-Boomer skirmishes and to bridge that volatile Boomer-GenXer divide. We can lead.
Last century, Thomas Wolfe wrote that another generation wasn't lost so much as undiscovered. "And the whole secret, power and knowledge of their own discovery," he declared, "is locked within them--they know it, feel it, have the whole thing in them--and they cannot utter it."
Generation Jones is clearing its throat. Its voice will be heard. What had been a steady stream of unsolicited e-mails to me from supportive Jonesers is now a flood. A generation aching to act has awoken. We are finally scratching the itch of The Jones.
For Boomers, the legacy of the 1960s is ideology, but for Jonesers it is idealism. That spirit of the sixties is far from dead; its seeds were planted in us as children then, and are flowering now. We're not late Boomers; we're late bloomers.